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On Monday, volunteers from The Salisbury Museum and other local organisations had the opportunity to visit Avebury, meet and socialise with one another, and to have a guided tour of the site, as well as visit the manor, church and museums. Forty attended in all, eighteen from our museum, seven from Wessex Archaeology, nine from Wiltshire Museum and six from Stonehenge, English Heritage. It was organised by the Stonehenge and Avebury Learning and Outreach Group (SALOG), and hosted, of course, by Avebury itself who opened up their doors and made sure that, amongst other things, we had excellent refreshments by way of coffee, tea and cake.

Feedback from volunteers:

“Thanks for this little adventure, Bridget. Very enjoyable, even if once again I asked awkward questions!   Not intentionally, of course!”

“Thank you so much for organising the trip today.  No matter how many times I visit Avebury I am always in awe of our ancestors and always learn more about our past.  It was a great day out and the Manor House was a revelation too. Mo and I took every opportunity to handle and examine the exhibits. As Miranda would say “such fun”. Thank you.” 

“I’ve been before, but not for many years.  I had no idea how vast it is.  It was so special to have a guided tour.”

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An artist’s impression showing the method that might have been used to move and lift the stones

Excavations suggest that Avebury was begun around 2 600 BC, with the digging of the spectacular ditch and bank. The addition of the stones, sarsens, was a little later, and presumably undertaken over a considerable period of time. It is said that as many as six hundred stones may have been erected, creating a huge outer circle, two inner circles and marking two avenues, each well over a mile (which is about 1.5km) long . It is thought possible that there were, in fact, four avenues, but there is no evidence as yet. The stones weigh up to ten tons (or tonnes) each.

Most of the stones had fallen or had been broken up for building purposes when, in 1935, Alexander Keiller (of marmalade fame) bought the manor house and much of the land around about.  His work followed on from that of earlier archaeologists and antiquarians. He had the stones re-erected and where they were no longer available, he marked the places with concrete posts. This was not guesswork. Stones which had earlier been removed to be broken up for building would have had a fire set beneath them. This was the best way to do it – the hot rock eventually splitting and taken away in wheelbarrows or on carts. It is, of course, the burning in the soil that tells the archaeologist where the stones have been. This is how the archaeologists have been able to trace the avenues, where very few of the original stones remain.

The bank is nearly a mile around and encloses about 28 acres (11 hectares). It is calculated that it would have taken about 1.5 million man hours to complete. It encloses the ditch (originally about 30 feet or 9m deep) , suggesting that the bank was for watching from and the ditch to prevent the ‘audience’ from getting any closer to what was going on. What ever it was, it was important.

Described variously as the largest henge in the world, in Europe, but certainly in Britain, this monument is apparently pre-dated by Stonehenge (in its earliest form), although both were almost certainly in use at the same time in the third millenium BC and it is possible that Avebury is earlier than currently estimated (see recent newspaper reports). Were they used for the same purpose, or same sort of purpose? Were they linked in some way? Were they rivals? Why were they built in this part of Britain? How were so many people drawn in to help construct these places? The assumption is that it is religion (in the broadest sense) that provides the motive and impetus, the focus, for such undertaking. Is it just so far from our modern view of the world that we can’t quite comprehend it?

A great day out. Many thanks to Bridget and all others concerned.